By Don Conway
Authors note: This is one of a series of stories called Movie Minor Characters in which I try to develop a fictional biography of some minor character in a popular movie. Colonel Pickering is such a person in the movie My Fair Lady.
John Pickering, later Colonel Pickering, was born at home in the East India Company’s station at Jaipur, in central India in 1850. His father, Sir Edward Pickering, was a general in the army of the East India Company. Sir Edward distinguished himself in the Great Indian Uprising of 1857. When Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company in 1858, Sir Edward’s commission was transferred to the British Army and he was given command of the garrison at Jaipur.
It was under these circumstances that John was raised in India speaking English, Sanskrit, and several local Indian dialects. He attended the local English School along with the other children of privileged English residents. He exhibited a facility with languages at an early age. His language ability made him a favorite with the household servants, the local native workers, and merchants.
As with most English boys, John began to play cricket at an early age. By the age of fourteen, he was a valued player on both the English garrison team and the local Indian team.
Life at the British Army garrison in Jaipur offered few opportunities for a middle-class boy and his father, Sir Edward, began to ponder his son’s future. With the East India Company no longer in existence there seemed to be only two possible futures for the boy–the clergy or the army. Disinclined to condemn his son to the religious life Sir Edward began to prepare John for the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, England. Since Woolwich was the premier training school for The Royal Army Engineering Corps, Sir Edward saw to it the John received a solid background in mathematics.
When one of Sir Edward’s old army comrades was appointed the Commanding Officer at Woolwich, Sir Edward prevailed upon him to accept John into the academy. John’s ability with languages, especially Indian languages, plus his reputation as a high scorer at cricket were sufficient to ensure his acceptance. He left India in 1868 and at the age of eighteen entered Woolwich.
At Woolwich, he studied Civil Engineering and graduated with honors in 1872 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. Because of his language facility, he was immediately sent back to India to the garrison at Bombay.
When Queen Victoria was established as the Empress of India in 1858 the continent exploded into a frenzy of economic, educational, and physical development. By 1900 India had the longest railroad and telegraph system in Asia. Elementary schools and Universities sprang up in every section of the country. As a Civil engineer, John was deeply involved in much of this construction. Railroads and waterworks were his special areas of expertise. For the next thirty years, from 1872 to 1902, he pursued his army career throughout most of central India.
His work with the Indian railroads and telegraph systems brought him into contact with many private entrepreneurs, contractors, and government officials. These contacts, in turn, opened a number of lucrative investment opportunities for him. As his military rank grew, eventually to a full colonelcy, so too, did his private fortune grow. By the time he retired from the British army in 1902, he had a comfortable portfolio of stocks and bonds to cushion his later years.
During his army years Colonel Pickering, long a confirmed bachelor, devoted his spare time to the study of the Sanskrit language. In 1885, he published a paper on this subject in the British Journal of Linguistics. Sanskrit considered a rather exotic language in Britain at the time, brought a small degree of fame to Colonel Pickering. Two additional papers published in 1887 and 1891 were enough to earn him an invitation to join the Royal Society of Asian Languages in 1892.
Encouraged by this growing notoriety he set about his most ambitious project — a scholarly treatise on the Sanskrit Language. He devoted the years from 1894 to 1900 to this work. His book Spoken Sanskrit was published in 1901 to great critical acclaim.
During his years of study, Colonel Pickering had often come across the name, and works, of a certain Professor Henry Higgins. Professor Higgin’s works on phonetics and his book Higgin’s Universal Alphabet were especially intriguing. Though a modest man, Colonel Pickering determined to return to England to meet and confer with the famous professor.
Pickering arrived in London in 1908. One evening, while settling himself into the Carlton Hotel, Colonel Pickering decided to attend a concert. While the concert was letting out it started to rain. Pickering, along with many others, took shelter in an arcade in front of a church. By the purest of circumstances, he came across Professor Higgins who was notating the gutter English speech of a flower girl named Eliza Doolittle.
Colonel Pickering and Professor Higgins, bonded by their common interest in language, struck up an immediate friendship. When Professor Higgins boasted that in six months, he could pass Eliza off as a Duchess, Colonel Pickering said that this was not possible. The two men entered into a bet over this project. The details of Eliza’s conversion were beautifully portrayed in the movie My Fair Lady.
Don Conway is an award-winning Architect and Writer (two golds and a silver medal from a national writing competition) also a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Says he is working hard on book number four.